Traditional vs modern archery: better or easier

Archery now is very different from what it used to be before 1960’s. It is around that time when modern bows, aids, and various accessories started coming into picture.

But some archery enthusiasts feel that the bows and tools we use now is not real archery. These people are very much influenced by the ‘history’ of the archery, and sometimes from the movies and media depiction of the archery.

They argue that the barebow archery is the ‘pure’ form of archery. Any modern technology you use takes you away from the ‘real and pure’ archery.

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Purist view of archery

The rationale behind this type of thinking is that they believe that archery fundamentally was dependent only on the skill and not on the equipment. Thus, a good archer was someone who was skilled in using bare-bow accurately.

They argue that modern gadgets and bows are pieces of technology and they take away the skill out of the picture. Hence making archery easier.

I kind of agree and disagree to this point of view. But a comprehensive argument should entail these two areas when we talk about effects of technology on Archery:

  1. Is technology making archery easier (meaning: is modern equipment replacing skills of an archer)
  2. Is technology making archery better (meaning: for all intents and purposes, is technology benefiting the art and sport of archery, and its practitioners)

Read: The Difference between Traditional and Modern Archery

PART I: Is technology making archery easier

1. Areas where skills are getting diluted and where they are not

i. Crossbows and Compound bows

While that may be true for some type of bows now. Crossbows and to some extent compound bows are definitely taking some of the skill away from the archery.

They do automate a lot of the process, hence, it can be argued that they take away some of the skill from the art of archery.

By the way, crossbows started coming into picture at around 6th Century BC. So, it can be ruled out as a modern invention. But it is an auto bow, so maybe we can skip it from this discussion of traditional vs modern.

Read: History of crossbows

ii. Modern recurve bow and accessories

But what about the metal bows, sights and stabilizers out there? Don’t they make things easy and take away the skill out of the picture?

Yes and no. Compared to the really old bows of the past, the bows designed today are much more accurate, sturdy and better in every way.

They can shoot farther, faster and more accurately.

We have been improving upon the bows since the first bows that appeared. Even before 1960’s when the modern bows started to appear, the bows have gone through many evolutions over time.

Even the bows that are sold as traditional bows today are way better than the traditional bows that people used to make in say 1550’s. And bows in 1550’s were better than those of 800 AD and so on.

Clothes are a good analogy to understand what has happened in archery. We are not running around wearing tree barks and animal hides of the stone age. Neither are we wearing simple clothes made from fur, wool and animal skin anymore. But the function of our modern clothes remains the same. That is to protect us from harsh weathers and cover our bodies.

Clothes evolved for usability and with the invention of better materials. Same goes with the archery.

2. Demystifying archery and practitioners of the archery

Archery is about releasing sharp projectiles to hit a target. But the difference is that now we know a lot more about the aerodynamics and physics to design better bows.

Lets look at two scenarios and evaluate them closely:

i. Modern recurve archer vs traditional archer

Yes, they do make the archery easier because bows now are more accurate. In fact, there is no comparison at all between a traditional bow shooter and modern recurve shooter.

However, I wouldn’t put it as modern archery being easier, but better. I’ll explain it in Part II of this article as to why.

At an Olympic level distance of about 70 meters outdoors, a skilled modern shooter will win 100% of the times with a lead of 100’s of points over a traditional shooter.

In fact, no person has even qualified for Olympics using a traditional bow just based on the skills. Ever.

It’s not the question of skill here. Traditional archer may have plenty of skills, however it does not bridge the gap between the equipment. As they say – ‘don’t bring knives to a gun fight’.

So, if you are looking at archery from the angle of accurately hitting a projectile from a distance then clearly modern recurve bows are much better than traditional bows by far.

This was the original intent and purpose of the bow. To shoot a target at great distances accurately. And that’s what these modern bows do by their design.

If we look at archery from the equipment point of view, then it is the same difference as a musket vs a modern rifle. Modern firearms are not only more reliable, with the technology they have been made more accurate, powerful and long lasting.

Read: Longbow vs. Recurve Bow: Which One Should You Buy?

ii. Modern recurve experienced archer vs modern recurve newbie archer

But do these bows make archery itself easy? If that would have been the case then any newbie archer with the minimal training in handling a bow would have been able to perform at equal footing with an experienced archer.

But this is not the case. In fact, it requires months and years to get your game to a professional level. Same as it used to be in olden days.

The modern equipment allows you to shoot more accurately, but it does not do it for you.

A crappy driver won’t become a super star driver just because you give him/her a Ferrari. A modern bow won’t make you a better archer.

So, the only thing modern archery equipment is doing for you is to provide you better accuracy and power compared to the old bows. The skill still remains in the equation though.

3. Accessories and skills

What about all the fancy gizmo’s like stabilizers and sights? A lot of people have gripes about them. Let’s take a closer look:

i. Stabilizers:

They make the handling of the bow easier. They reduce the movement of the bow sideways and forward-backward axis.

It does not increase the skill level of the archer by any means, it just helps in providing the stability to the bow, thus increasing the chances of hitting the target more accurately.

Basically, it reduces the errors that may happen due to archer inadvertently moving the bow while taking a shot.

Some people can argue that holding a bow stably was a matter of skill on part of the archer. Thus, stabilizers are cheating.

However, good bows of the past were also heavier, thus compensating for this. Ancient archers were already cheating, stabilizers just made it easy.

Read: What Do Stabilizers Do?

ii. Sight:

These are basically aiming devices mounted on the bow. They help in aiming by having a reference point to mark the target.

Critics say they aim for you. They don’t. Sights are the same as the markings on the bow that traditional archers used to make for aiming.

Sighting devices, however, are easy to use and calibrate for different distances. Markings on the bow that traditional archers used to make were fixed, while sights can be adjusted based on the person using them, and for distance.

Sights do not tell where to aim. Archer has to set by trial and error OR with their experience and practice to use them.

Sights are highly manual device and they don’t have any magnetic, autoguiding or course correcting feature in them.

So basically, sights are the same concept used all along by traditional archers. The only difference is that they are more flexible in their working. They are making the job of an archer as easy as the markings used to do for traditional archers.

Instinctive archers or archers that preferred muscle memory to shoot do not fall in this category. And they still don’t. Not every modern archer uses sights, just like not every archer of the past made markings on their bows.

Read: How Archery Sights Work: The Easiest Way to Sight In a Bow

4. Compound bow vs traditional bow

Any discussion about modern equipment replacing skills is incomplete without mentioning compound bows.

Are compound bows machine and are they taking the skill out of the archery?

Well, this is a grey area. There are some things that compound bow mechanizes and makes it super easy for archers. But a lot of it still requires skills.

Compound bows, with all their cams and levers, take away lot of strain from the archer. Thus, effectively increasing the power of the bow drastically.

So instead of 50 pounds an archer feels on their fingers, they only feel 15 pounds because the mechanism of the bow takes away a lot of the load.

They also have trigger release that takes away some of the skill used by the archer in releasing the arrow.

A new archer with a compound bow can achieve a much higher proficiency and accuracy in short period of time compared to traditional or recurve bow archers

Compound bows are epitome of our bow engineering. Purists may hate it, but many archery enthusiasts love and swear by compound bows.

There are lots of flavors of archery. All are valid and all have their place in the archery community. Compound bow has a significant place in it and currently used in every archery endeavor around the world, whether it be archery competitions, hunting, recreationally or pursuing it as a hobby.

Read: How Compound Bows Work

5. Skills of archery

Skills in aiming is one thing that modern archery has made simpler if not easier, to say the least. But there is another big component of archery. That is release and executing the shot.

This is something that is the core of the archery, and hasn’t been touched from past to present.

This part is not automated or influenced by the evolution of the bows and still largely relies on the archer’s skills.

It is ultimately the archer who releases the arrow and executes the shot.

If it would have been influenced by the modern bows then everyone would have been able to execute with the same ease and proficiency, and there would be no difference between archers with modern aiming tools.

In short, any new archer trained to handle a bow for a couple of days should be able to shoot the bow with same proficiency as the professional or Olympic level archers.

But that’s not the case. It still takes months and years to reach that level of proficiency in executing the shot.

Read: Understand of Archery Culture

6. Conclusion

Archery has evolved a lot since 1960s. In fact, some of the modern bows like compound bows are epitome of our bow technology and are much more powerful equipment (machines?).

We are also able to come up with some unique solutions to some of the challenges that archers used to face in the past. As a result, we have developed plethora of accessories to support an archer in their pursuit.

These tweaks that we have made to the archery were not made by the traditional archers of the past not because of the want or desire, but lack of understanding and tools to make them happen.

But this may often seem like dilution of archery by some sectors of the archery circle.

Much may have changed in terms of the equipment, the core of the archery still remains intact.

Simple wooden bows are still out there for those who love and enjoy them, however modern recurve and compound bows still have a steep learning curve for a new initiate. AND the skills are the same for the most part.

The only thing that has truly changed is the power, usability, ergonomics, life, performance and consistency of the bows. Archers using modern equipment still have to work weeks, months and years to get to a proficient level.

PART II: Is technology making archery better

1. Are modern bows better than traditional bows

Now that we have looked at the fundamental question of skill being replaced by modern equipment, lets’ go a step further and dive into whether modern bows are better in comparison to the traditional bows.

Is technology making archery better or worse?

This will be an eye opener for many non-archers as well as some of the “experts” who have made their opinions using media and traditional books.

In fact, many people are so enamored by the media representation of traditional archery, they desire to get into archery with a preconceived notion that old technology is what archery is all about and is better.

How Precision technology is a game-changer for Archery | The Tech Race

Read: Why Are Compound Bows Better Than Traditional Bows?

2. Why bother changing if it is perfect

If archers in the past were able to shoot quite well with their traditional bows, why did we come up with a fancy bow like this one:

Archery has been used throughout the human history and even traditional archery has segregated itself into regional flavors because of the need, and sometimes the use of it. English longbow is very different from a Turkish bow. Japanese Kyudo has very different style compared to Mongolian archery

Despite so many variations, the technology of bow did not change that much throughout the history. It is only around 1960’s when we started tweaking with the design, construction and even mechanism of the bow using our knowledge and technology.

It is ironical that, despite a bow that was a necessary utility tool for the people of the past, they had bows comparable to a cave men. While now archery is mostly used for recreational purposes and the bows we have are sophisticated pieces of technology

Asians did work on advancing the bows a bit. Japanese developed laminated bows where different types of wood was layered together to create a bow.

Turks, Hans, Mongols and Arabs also advanced the technology a bit by using composite bows. They were made from horns, wood and sinew and were very powerful in comparison to other types of bows being used worldwide that were made by using a single piece of wood.

3. Journey from traditional to modern archery

Bows started becoming irrelevant for us when industrial revolution began and we started using firearms over traditional weapons like bows, swords and spears.

Prior to the industrial revolution, bows were household weapon in many parts of the world. Afterwards, it was marginalized as a sport or for recreational purposes of the rich and the elite.

After 18th Century, archery was mostly treated as a sport for the most part. Archery became an Olympic sport thereafter and it started developing from the traditional wooden bows.

By that time, we were already making complicated machines with lots of moving parts with our technology, and wooden bows started to feel a bit inadequate and out of time. People started experimenting with different materials and construction methods.

From 1960’s we started seeing metal like Aluminum being introduced in manufacturing of arrows and then bows.

In 1960’s we also started sending people to the moon as a testament of our knowledge and scientific progress in aerodynamics.

Bows were modified to use those aerodynamic principles to be more accurate, fast, consistent and powerful.

Using the principles of mechanics we heavily modified bows to be more like a machine, and created compound bows.

Read: Medieval versus Modern Archery

4. Why did bows changed

Now one good thing about technology is that it is always moving forward. It is never just for the sake of it. That is to say, we only use technology to either make things better, faster, easier, stronger or improving the performance of something in a positive way.

If the old bows were a better choice, I bet that people would have left it alone by just making some minor cosmetic enhancements.

Firearms and industrial revolution changed the nature and usage of the bow entirely. Bow went straight from an important and strategic military tool to a recreational equipment.

Modern bows of the present compared to the best traditional bows of the past are not even close in comparison now.

Read: From Past To Present: The Evolution of Bow Technology

5. What changed in bows

Now here I am not going to talk about the skill of the archer, but equipment to equipment comparison of modern vs traditional.

BowsThey were primarily made of wood which becomes warped over time, it could set in a particular shape (permanently deform) thus losing all the potential energy in the bow.  If they are kept strung, it accelerates the process of warping and setting off of the wood. Modern bows have been researched on from 1930s and the result is that risers are now made from wood, carbon, aluminum alloy or magnesium alloy. While limbs are made from multiple layers (composite limbs) of fiberglass, carbon, metal (aluminum) and wood.
They have modular design with much more speed, performance, efficiency, consistency, balance, vibration dampening and better ergonomics.
They can take more stress, have much more life, and are not affected by weather conditions.
Takedown bows (3 piece bows) are fairly common modern recurve bows. You can take them apart and carry them with ease and they are super easy to assemble when required.
Armies in the past would love to have this feature if nothing else.
StringThey were made from linen, hemp or natural material like fibers from plans or from sinew (tendon or ligament of animals). They perform differently in different conditions. If they got wet they became slack and lost all the power in the bow. Strings nowadays are of synthetic material (Dacron – a polyester; Spectra and Dyneema – polyethylene materials) which are much more durable, and much stronger for their weight.
Primarily, they are not affected by water. They are easier to use, long lasting, do not lose their properties with usage, and less prone to wear and tear.
AdhesiveLayers on the composite bows were pasted to each other with animal glue which is water soluble. When these bows get wet (due to wet climate or rain), they delaminate and in fact shooting them can cause an explosion with the bow coming apart and flying all over the place. Glues used today to patch up things on any part of the bow, or on the layers of the limbs are industrial grade with none of the drawbacks and much more strength than that used in the past.
Or simply screws and bolts are used where required.
CustomizationBows were hand made in the past with little choice of components and personalization. Either they were made in bulk for the masses, or they were personally designed for some figure of royalty or important members of the military. However, there were limited options based on usage, portability, ergonomics and personal preference. Now, however, you get bows of all types, all styles, and with unlimited number of options, replacements, and personalization. So much so that new archers can get lost in the sea of options that are available to them.
This is in no way an exhaustive comparison between the two, but this alone gives you plenty of idea where the differences lie between modern and traditional bows of the past.

This is in no way an exhaustive comparison between the two. But this alone may give you plenty of idea about the level of transformation the archery equipment has gone through from past to present.

It may seem like Ford’s Model T vs Tesla’s Model 3.

Read: The straight story: Bow and arrow advances lift other sports

6. Conclusion

Modern bows are better in every aspect compared to the bows that were made with limited technology in the past.

The purpose of the bows has also changed. However, given a choice, I am sure any archer of the past would love to get his/her hands on such a sophisticated, precise and powerful bow that is used in modern times.

No amount of skill can cover the gap that modern bows provide over the traditional bows.

I won’t be able to enjoy Nintendo Game Boy that used to come in 80’s after playing some famous games on my mobile phone these days. In the same vein, I will never be able to justify or enjoy going for an inferior equipment that traditional archers had after using modern recurve bows.

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7 thoughts on “Traditional vs modern archery: better or easier”

  1. I own multiple compound bows, modern recurve bows with sights etc, modern recurve bow without sights etc, and traditional korean & turk horse bows.

    The bows i used the most is the traditional korean bow. Next is the compound bow. Modern recurve untouched collecting dust.

    The reason is:
    – compound bow i use for shooting hard and far accurately
    – traditional korean bow for faster shooting, and i like pulling the string using thumb: able to draw longer and 0 wrist slap/ face slap. The set up is super simple: bow, arrow, small thumb ring.
    – modern recurve: slow to load(compare to traditional, and no benefit to compound. Wrist slap may happen and is troublesome to wear protection and the bow is more of a hassle to use than korean horse bow.


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